Naming Our Desire: How Do We Talk About Socialism in America?

Naming Our Desire: How Do We Talk About Socialism in America?

The millennial embrace of socialism has allowed a new generation to draw inspiration from a long legacy of struggle.

Since Occupy Wall Street in 2011, DSA's membership has more than quadrupled (David Shankbone)

Essays about the prospects of socialism in the United States tend to look for signs of hope, and this makes sense. After all, if you are convinced it can never be, what’s the point in even considering it?

“I write at the end of a right-wing era . . . and on the eve of a new move toward the Left in the West,” Michael Harrington wrote shortly before his death in 1989. Likewise, when the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) released a revised version of its founding document in 1995, the updated statement invoked the belief “that we stand at the beginning of a new political era,” one presenting significant opportunity for progressive change.

These optimistic statements—with their confidence that the horrors of Reaganism might be relegated to the past—can now only be read as cautionary tales. And yet, while we proceed with care, it is not delusional to think that today, even under a President Trump, there are legitimate indications of promise. In the past two years, democratic socialism has been put back on the political map in the United States, gaining a relevance it has not enjoyed in decades.

In the 2016 Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders garnered more than 13 million votes in his run as an openly socialist presidential candidate, winning contests in twenty-three states, from Hawaii and Nebraska to West Virginia and Maine. Prior to his campaign, such results would have been flatly inconceivable to the nation’s class of professional political observers. Remarkably, a February 2016 poll of likely Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa found that 43 percent of those surveyed professed they would use the word “socialist” to describe themselves. And as of April 2017, Sanders was polling as the country’s most popular active politician.

Apart from the Sanders run, DSA’s membership has quadrupled since 2015, with most of the growth coming since Trump’s election. This makes the group the largest socialist organization the country has seen since the 1960s. Probably more significant than short-term gains are indications of an ongoing generational shift. A much-cited Pew survey from late 2011 showed that more eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds think positively of socialism than of capitalism, and later polls have shown capitalism meeting with similarly widespread disapproval from this age group.

We should approach such evidence with some wariness: as a native Iowan, I know many good progressives in my home state, but I have never been to a caucus that felt in imminent risk of a socialist takeover. Plus, we cannot presume to know exactly what survey respondents mean when they view socialism more favorably than capitalism. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake not to acknowledge that a significant change has taken place. In a very short period of time, the space available to openly discuss socialist vision, theory, and politics has widened appreciably.

For those who wish to take advantage of the opportunity the moment presents, this has raised some important questions: How do we speak about socialism in a language that is accessible and appealing to millions of Americans? How do we define the term? And what does a newfound ability to discuss socialism bring to the table that is distinct from the outlook of past social movement mobilizations—such as Occupy Wall Street—that burst onto the scene in recent decades?

Relevant to these questions is a new set of books that aims to feed the fresh wave of interest in left politics. Shortly after the 2016 election, Sanders himself released Our Revolution, a volume that is part campaign-trail memoir and part slate of progressive policies. In the same year, a younger generation offered two noteworthy collections of essays. The Future We Want, edited by Sarah Leonard (an editor at both the Nation and Dissent) and Bhaskar Sunkara (the founder and publisher of Jacobin), presents a set of radical proposals, many explicitly rooted in the socialist tradition. The “we” in The Future We Want refers to millennials, who, Leonard writes, are hungry for “an alternative vision—both reformist and revolutionary, utopian and pragmatic.”

A second collection, a slim volume produced by Jacobin entitled The ABCs of Socialism, provides pamphlet-length answers to questions such as “Socialism sounds good in theory, but doesn’t human nature make it impossible to realize?” While the guide expresses the immodest ambition to survive for years to come as “a primer for future generations of radicals,” it also places itself in the moment: Regardless of how the story ends, its editors write, the book will serve as “an artifact of a time when the socialist left was once again filled with promise.”

Between the various authors and editors of these volumes, we find not a single vision of socialism but several. Whether, in this moment of promise, one or more of them might be made viable forces in U.S. politics remains an uncertain, if intriguing, prospect.

A first question that those seeking to speak about socialism in America must confront is: Should we use the term “socialism” at all?

In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell wrote, “To the ordinary working man, the sort you would meet in any pub on Saturday night, Socialism does not mean much more than better wages and shorter hours and nobody bossing you about.” In the United States today, no such common sense about socialism exists, and, particularly among adults over the age of forty, opinions are likely colored by the intensive anti-Communist propaganda of yesteryear.

In the face of this reality, arguably the dominant move since the New Left has been for those who might identify privately as socialists to carry on their organizing without advertising this belief, joining in larger progressive formations fighting for civil rights, improved working conditions, or expanded social services. Certainly this was true in my own generation of student activists that came of age politically in democratic socialist circles in the mid- to late-1990s. In large part, we entered the labor movement, progressive nonprofits, and local politics with a focus on finding the most effective organizing rather than on advocating an overt ideological framework. The mindset was that evangelizing for socialism, as an explicit ideal, would distract from the more pressing work at hand. The main exceptions to this trend—academics—may have felt freer to expound their radicalism, but they also reinforced the impression of socialism being an intellectual project far removed from the day-to-day realities of U.S. politics.

A parallel maneuver has been to advocate for socialist aims, but to call your efforts something different—to give them a name free of negative associations. Coming off of his 1976 U.S. Senate campaign in California, Tom Hayden spearheaded a drive known as the Campaign for Economic Democracy. Denouncing “Corporate Capitalism” as “the source of our ills,” the campaign formed chapters throughout the state, backed progressive candidates in local elections (more than a dozen of whom won office), pushed the University of California to divest from apartheid South Africa, and took up a variety of pro-union, environmental, and tenants’ rights campaigns.

“Economic democracy” is no doubt a useful term, but socialist writers offer several arguments against such rebranding efforts. They point out, first, that although leftists might employ semantic sleights to avoid the baggage of the word “socialism,” their enemies will scarcely relent in foisting this baggage upon them. Today’s Republicans are fond of red-baiting even the mildest of liberals, and conservative talk radio did not hesitate to paint Barack Obama as an avatar of Kenyan communism. In The Future We Want, Sarah Leonard writes, “The modern GOP accuses every Democrat of being a socialist (we wish!) and slurs progressive taxation, universal health care, and a host of other decent policies as ‘foreign’ and ‘European’ in order to cast suspicion on anyone left of center.”

More than sixty years earlier, in the third issue of Dissent, Norman Thomas anticipated this problem. He argued that, even if the left could agree on a new terminology, “we should be hounded unmercifully by all those whose stock in trade is denunciation of socialism on the ground that we were trying to hide something, that we had become crypto-socialists and, hence, more dangerous.” Better to embrace your convictions freely than to put yourself immediately on the defensive.

A more positive argument is that by openly naming their beliefs, socialists can present a rigorous account of capitalism’s flaws and the potentials for a humane alternative. Rather than presenting economic democracy as a novel idea, they can point to a century of efforts to bring it to fruition, some of which have resulted in genuine political gains. Explicitly reflecting on the Campaign for Economic Democracy, Michael Harrington wrote in 1988, “if one pretends that one is not a socialist, or speaks in euphemisms, all that is lost is the basic clarity of analysis and program.”

In this instance, Harrington directed his comment at Tom Hayden, but he might well have been indicting his younger self too. In preparing his landmark 1962 book, The Other America, Harrington had opted against using socialist language. As he later reflected, “I decided that if I even mentioned the word socialism, I would divert attention from the plight of the poor, evoke all the misconceptions Americans had about the term, and would then have to deal with the myths the word had conjured up.”

Harrington regretted the decision almost immediately. Or, at least, he resolved that his subsequent writing would atone for it. For the rest of his life, and in more than a dozen books, he would devote himself to unabashedly championing the cause of democratic socialism in the United States.

In the absence of a mainstream socialist party, having prominent individuals who are easily identified in the public mind as being not merely progressives, but open socialists, has been an important part of keeping the movement’s ideals alive. Among veteran activists, you can occasionally hear the lament that no one took up the Debs-Thomas-Harrington mantle of serving as the standard bearer for the cause. After Harrington’s death in 1989, there was no single individual who would be widely regarded by the public as “Mr. Socialism”—as the media sometimes dubbed the role.

Of course, this was a tellingly antiquated turn of phrase. Many contemporary activists, particularly younger ones, would question the desirability of having one charismatic figurehead—invariably a white man—embody the movement.

Bernie Sanders might be considered a continuation of the previous lineage. And yet—for all his importance in re-legitimizing socialism—Sanders has actually staked out a middle-ground position in how he uses, or avoids using, socialist language.

Sanders does not shy away from being identified as a socialist. In Our Revolution he reminisces about attempting to build “socialism in one city” as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, and he proudly tells of hanging a plaque of Eugene Debs in his Senate office in Washington, D.C. He did not disavow the term when moderator Anderson Cooper tried to bait him in a 2015 Democratic primary debate with a question about whether he thought democratic socialism could be accepted in the United States.

DSA members join other socialist groups at this year’s May Day march in New York. As of December, DSA has more than 30,000 members (Alec Perkins / Flickr)

At the same time, although Sanders did not run from socialism in his presidential bid, neither did he emphasize it in his appeal to the public. He turned instead to rhetoric that would feel neither novel nor uncomfortable within the left wing of the Democratic Party. On the campaign trail and in his subsequent advocacy, he called for “a bold, progressive agenda that takes on the billionaire class and creates a government that works for all of us and not just for big campaign donors.”

In the conclusion to Our Revolution, he writes in soaring tones about the importance of rejecting conventional politics’ “limitation of our imaginations.” He insists that we can provide universal health coverage, transform our energy system to address climate change, and “overcome the insatiable greed that now exists” in order to “create an economy that ends poverty.” In this instance and many others, the desire he expresses for a reinvigorated, grassroots democracy is real and rousing. But he does not give this desire the name socialism.

When asked directly by Cooper, Sanders defined his beliefs as an objection to Wall Street recklessness and extreme inequality: “What democratic socialism is about,” he explained, “is saying that it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of 1 percent in this country own . . . almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.” In a speech at Georgetown University the following month, considered his major statement on the subject, Sanders repeatedly invoked Franklin Delano Roosevelt and reminded his audience that social security, banking regulation, and ending child labor were all denounced as socialist proposals at one time.

This manner of describing his politics was probably politically savvy, although it presented a predicament to his more left-leaning listeners. Many socialists would understandably have qualms with defining their program as merely an extension of New Deal liberalism. Then again, to take the most popular socialist politician in generations and simply say “He’s not really a socialist” would be to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Could Sanders have been bolder in presenting a more far-reaching vision of socialism? The millennial readers of Marx say yes. Part of the argument for socialism’s popularity in the under-thirty age bracket is that, for those young people now becoming increasingly influential in political life, the reticence bred by the Cold War no longer applies. As Bhaskar Sunkara has written with regard to Bernie Sanders, “the socialist label no longer conjures images of breadlines and gulags.” Or, as Sarah Leonard puts it, “Because we came to political consciousness after 1989, we’re not instinctively freaked out by socialism.”

More immediate in this generation’s experience is soaring student debt, the wreckage wrought by the 2008 financial crisis, and the idea that whatever economic security their parents might have attained is now out of reach. In other words, the failures of capitalism are close at hand, and politicians need not be punished for proposing something better.

Still, Sanders is right that, if public figures are going to use the term socialism, they need to be able to explain what they mean by it, and this is not a simple task.

The seventh chapter of Michael Harrington’s Socialism: Past and Future opens with a question: “Well, then, what is socialism?” That this sentence should appear 188 pages into the text, despite the author’s best efforts to make the idea clear, illustrates some of the conceptual problems we face.

Lacking a single country we can point to as an altogether satisfactory exemplar, those promoting the idea can be stuck defining it in the negative: Against right-wingers trying to tar the movement with the crimes of Stalinism, we point out that democratic socialists have been consistent critics of authoritarianism, whether enacted by Soviet bureaucrats or market-friendly dictators installed by the West. Countries such as Sweden and Denmark do model many desirable policies, but none of the young authors championing a socialist resurgence wish to limit their vision to the partial gains of European social democracy.

On a more local level, some popular internet memes suggest that socialism is already part of our daily lives in the United States—just look at public libraries or the fire department. But, as Chris Maisano writes in The ABCs of Socialism, simply conflating socialism with anything funded by tax dollars “forces us to defend many of the most objectionable forms of state activity, including those that we would want to abolish.” (Think supermax prisons or the CIA.)

Introductions to socialism must also grapple with a number of further complications: How deep into theory do you go? The rich Marxist intellectual tradition should be a strength, but it can foster a socialism for grad students, in which newcomers feel excluded if they have not adequately studied their Ernest Mandel. Should one relate the intricacies of political history? These can grow similarly arcane. In terms of laying out a program, does one adopt the common socialist skepticism of painting detailed sketches of future society? Marx famously detested utopian socialists’ elaborate plans for ideal communities—schemes which, as Hal Draper quipped, always emerged “full-blown from the cranium of the Leader.”

Harrington, like Draper in his famous 1960s–era pamphlet “The Two Souls of Socialism,” was willing to risk a professorial tack, one heavy on theory and political history. Books like Harrington’s Socialism: Past and Future are filled with reflections on thinkers—Marx, of course, but also Kautsky and Luxemburg, Crosland and Keynes, Marcuse and Gramsci, among many others. Harrington enjoyed some success with this approach to popularizing socialist theory: Although considerably less widely read than The Other America, his 1972 Socialism sold more than 100,000 copies—no small feat. Still, Harrington soon found himself in a no-win situation. As biographer Maurice Isserman relates, his later titles went quickly out of print and never quite pleased the critics, being “too dilute” for the hard-core Marxologists and “too abstruse for everyone else.”

Avoiding theory altogether, Bernie Sanders—as befits a member of Congress—trains his sights on public policy. Our Revolution outlines an agenda of ending tax breaks for the wealthy, breaking up Wall Street’s largest banks, overturning Citizens United and establishing public financing of elections, providing free higher education, promoting unionization and living wages, passing comprehensive immigration reform, adopting single-payer healthcare, guaranteeing universal pre-K and paid sick days, ending racially discriminatory policing, reversing the school-to-prison pipeline, and shifting from fossil fuels to sustainable energy.

This is a sizeable list. Such measures are not anti-capitalist per se, but they have the advantage of being concrete and actionable. And, in the context of current political realities, they can hardly be said to lack ambition.

The editors of The ABCs of Socialism and The Future We Want would no doubt welcome such reforms, but they also want something more. The books, which share a variety of contributors, focus on neither theory nor short-term policy, but on socialist vision and values. Both collections envision changes that go beyond regulating capitalism and sheltering citizens from its excesses—and instead argue for democratic control of both political and economic life.

With reference to Orwell, the policies Sanders advances would afford better wages and shorter hours, but the millennial authors also want to speak to “nobody bossing you about.” To this end, in The Future We Want, Seth Ackerman details possible methods for socializing finance. Meanwhile, in ABCs, Sunkara explains that workplace democracy and social ownership of productive assets (such as factories and transportation infrastructure) would not mean that the government would meddle with your personal possessions. Socialists can well accept markets for things like consumer goods, he argues, and still retain the old ideal of creating “a world where people don’t try to control others for personal gain, but instead cooperate so that everyone can flourish.”

Both volumes also devote essays to race, feminism, and environmentalism—topics to which the earlier generation of primers may have nodded but tended not to substantively engage. The result is not an overt redefinition of socialism, but an expanding of its purview and an argument for socialism’s relevance to contemporary movements. In ABCs, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor describes how racism in the United States is intimately bound up in a system of economic exploitation—much as, in The Future We Want, Jesse Myerson and Mychal Denzel Smith argue that dismantling racism requires not just police reform, but demands like full employment and redistributive taxation. Nicole Aschoff in ABCs and Leonard in The Future We Want each take aim at the limits of corporate feminism; they contend that we must fight for women’s rights and workers’ rights simultaneously—with Leonard emphasizing the particular need for the recognition and redistribution of care work. In both volumes, Alyssa Battistoni writes on socialism and the environment. She argues that, by adapting socialist-feminist insights into the labor of social reproduction, we can better value the work that ecosystems do to sustain humanity, and she explains how demands for shorter working hours can be steps toward creating “a society that emphasizes quality of life over quantity of things.”

The strength of such proposals is that, following André Gorz, they serve as non-reformist reforms; they distinguish socialism from liberalism by not merely aiming to ameliorate an immediate harm of capitalism and call it a day. Instead, they would alter power relationships and, as Sunkara puts it in an essay with Peter Frase, assemble “the forces necessary for more fundamental transformations in the future.”

The weakness of such proposals is that they can seem far away. For the most part, the volumes leave unanswered huge strategic questions about how we get from here to there. The contributors take inspiration, though, from Occupy, Black Lives Matter, and the Fight for $15, as well as the Sanders campaign and European anti-austerity movements. They argue that such efforts are strengthened by ambitious ideas—proposals that, as Leonard puts it, are “big enough to be worthy of the global discontent that put them on the agenda.” Facing a world run by billionaires, she concludes, “People want to know that there is another way.”

Despite signs of promise, any suggestions of a mass socialist upsurge must be put in perspective. Even with DSA’s membership quadrupling in the past two years, its dues-payers, as of this writing, total some 27,000 people. This number does not a popular majority make.

Sanders’s unexpectedly strong showing notwithstanding, the case does not follow from his campaign that political candidates should run first as socialists, nor that activists should prioritize speaking in more ideological terms—to promote socialized medicine, for example, rather than Medicare for All. Socialists must still position themselves within a wider left, and they must look for coalitions with willing allies.

The difficulties of building a movement are old ones; what’s new is to have a young and revitalized base that can approach them with a sense of tradition—one that self-consciously sees its big ideas as rooted in more than a century of organizing. With Republicans entrenched in statehouses and Congress alike, socialist goals remain remote. Given this, policing the boundaries of what is and isn’t true socialism does not make much sense in the American context. Sanders voters who want to get involved in left politics need not obsess over the finer distinctions, for example, between Marxist humanists and left social democrats inspired by Polanyi; DSA has traditionally accommodated a wide range of radicals.

Yet being able to openly promote a democratic-socialist vision remains significant because it puts new activists in dialogue with a deep lineage of strategic and philosophical discussion about how to build a more just economy and a more participatory politics. In terms of attracting new members, long-term vision can complement short-term policy demands. (Come for the universal pre-K, stay for the workplace control.) And the fact that economic democracy has been a long-held dream for millions can serve as a source of strength.

New mass mobilizations often bring with them a spirit of reinvention. When a wave of protest erupts, its activists have a right to highlight their innovations and to craft their own distinctive version of radical politics. But a fixation on originality can also become a liability. It can veer into a type of ahistoricism that cuts off new participants from the lessons of the past.

The global justice movement, which seized the spotlight in the U.S. after protests outside the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle in late 1999, opened the possibility of an “anti-capitalist” politics for a post–Cold War generation. It dealt a critical blow to the idea that there was no alternative to corporate rule. But, perhaps because of a prevailing anarchist mood in much of the movement, it was weaker in describing the contours of any particular alternative.

Occupy went further in injecting class conflict into the domestic debate, framing our dominant national dilemma as a clash between the 99 percent and the 1 percent. But, between its own anarchist strains and its nature as a youth movement, it risked being overwhelmed by a sense of novelty. Author Nathan Schneider defined the ethos of Occupy as apocalyptic: “The preceding world has passed, and a new revelation is at hand.”

In this context, the Sanders campaign, even with its modest New Deal emphasis, made a significant advance. It not only allowed for a return of open socialism; it helped to clear a path away from the ahistorical, connecting fresh adherents with a tradition that is multi-generational, that has achieved gains of historic importance, and that still has great unrealized potential. With Trump’s election, the need for this tradition has become ever more clear.

If the millennial embrace of socialism is made possible by an escape from history, by the lack of lived experience of the Cold War, this condition also creates a freedom to engage history anew. It has allowed a next generation to draw inspiration from a long struggle—against poverty and exploitation, and for genuine democratic self-determination—that could not previously be named. We can delight in this development, regardless of how the story ends.

Mark Engler’s latest book, written with Paul Engler, is This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-First Century (Nation Books, 2016). He is on the editorial board of Dissent.

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